Kimbrel keeps impressing his Orioles teammates

The thought struck Danny Coulombe like a screaming line drive. At least it didn’t leave any bruises.

“Man, I got to play catch with a Hall of Famer.”

That’s the impact closer Craig Kimbrel makes on his new teammates.

Coulombe and Kimbrel worked out together before Monday night’s game at Camden Yards. Tossing a baseball back and forth no longer felt routine. There was something special about it for Coulombe.

“He’s obviously a Hall of Famer,” Coulombe said yesterday, anticipating the voting that awaits Kimbrel five years after his retirement, “but he is like the most down to earth guy you’ll ever meet.”

“You would never know it by the way that he treats others,” Coulombe said. “He treats everybody with the same amount of respect, no matter if you have a day in the big leagues or you have 10 years. I really respect Craig and I’ve only known him for about two months. He’s a pretty awesome guy.”

Kimbrel signed as a free agent at the Winter Meetings, a deal that guaranteed him $13 million and included an option and buyout. He didn’t compete for the closer’s job in spring training. Executive vice president/general manager Mike Elias made it clear in his suite at the Gaylord Opryland Hotel in Nashville that Kimbrel would handle the responsibility while Félix Bautista recovered from ligament-reconstructive surgery in his right elbow.

The trust obviously made sense given Kimbrel’s stature in the game. How he ranked eighth all-time in saves entering his 15th season. No one else in the bullpen came close to his experience and credentials.

A bloop single, two stolen bases and a fly ball stuck Kimbrel with a blown save in his first appearance on April 1 against the Royals. Since then, he’s strung together seven scoreless outings in a row to lower his ERA to 1.29, and his WHIP has dropped to 0.429.

Kimbrel’s allowed only three hits, but the most impressive part is how he’s walked none and struck out 13, a first for him to begin a season. He also approached 97 mph with his fastball Sunday while facing his final Milwaukee batter, Sal Frelick, who struck out to conclude a 6-4 win.

“Craig has been, since I’ve been in the league, one of the best closers in the game,” said Corbin Burnes, who topped the veteran right-hander as the club’s biggest offseason move. “I was fortunate to play with (Josh) Hader for many years in Milwaukee and I think Hader was trying to rival what Craig had done for years in the league.

“I remember the All-Star Game in Seattle, we were all there and getting to talk to Hader and Craig and just listen to those guys go back and forth. I know Hader learned a lot from him just in those conversations they had, and I think everyone can learn something from what he’s done in this league for so long. He’s done it American League, National League, he’s done it all over the league, so it’s not like he got in a spot where it was advantageous for him and got a bunch of saves and did really well. He’s done it everywhere.

“I think the Orioles bringing him in and kind of anchoring the back end of the bullpen, obviously with the injury to Bautista last year, he’s a guy that all these guys can look toward. Obviously, there’s a lot of young guys with little experience out there, especially at the back end of the games. I think it’s a good opportunity for those guys to learn and hopefully Craig keeps getting as many saves as he can and keeps climbing up that leader board in saves.”

Kimbrel has reached 421 to move within one of former Braves teammate Billy Wagner for seventh place, and he could pass Francisco Rodríguez (437) for fourth before packing his bags and returning home for the winter.

“Definitely not surprised,” said Mike Baumann. “Whenever I play catch with him, he knows what he wants to do and what he wants to see from a pitch-to-pitch standpoint. He just had so many reps over his career that he’s really fine-tuned and polished. I’m really not surprised.”

Teammates noticed the dedication to his craft in spring training. They studied how he prepared, how every throw was done with intent, even during a game of catch or on a bullpen mound.

He had a purpose for everything he did.

“He’s been a great role model, just someone I can look up to,” Baumann said. “See what he does on a daily basis, which has gotten him to this point. Just see his mentality and his work ethic, and just what makes him who he is. It’s been pretty special to share a bullpen with him.”

“When I was in Milwaukee for all those years,” Burnes said, “we always had a veteran or two out there, whether it was your closer, whether it was your setup guy. Just a guy who can cover some innings for you and have that knowledge. Having that guy that those guys can talk to, to look to, routine, just how he goes about his business. Obviously, the ultimate professional with how he goes about his business and gets prepared every day.

“Not many days you’re going to go up to Craig and ask, ‘Hey, you got it today?’ He’s always going to be like, ‘I’m ready to take the ball.’ That’s just kind of how he is. It’s a great guy, a great veteran to be out there. And on a young team in general, even position players, just to have this guy that’s done it for so long.

“I still look up to him, to have that many years in the league. Obviously, a little bit different role but just someone who has so much knowledge and can learn so much from him.”

Manager Brandon Hyde won’t use Kimbrel three days in a row this early in the season, which removed him from consideration last night even before the Orioles put the game out of reach. But there’s always today.

Kimbrel will keep setting an example. He’ll lead and mentor. And he’ll get more outs.

That’s the main reason he’s here. The other stuff seems like a bonus.

“He’s a pretty dang good pitchers, a pretty dang good pitcher,” Coulombe said with a grin. No doubt.”

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